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Burma: To go or not to go?

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27 November 2013 by David Ward

As the BBC screens its new natural history series, Wild Burma: Nature's Lost Kingdom, we take a look at the key issues surrounding travel to this enchanting, yet troubled country.

Burma's problems have been well documented. Years of oppressive rule by a military dictatorship led to the country being almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Shunned by the majority of tourists, and indeed much of the travel industry, until as recently as 2009, its only in the last three years that visitors have started to return in significant numbers, due in no small part to the words and work of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who, after her release from house arrest in 2010, declared that the boycott on tourism should finally be lifted, on the condition that the Burmese people and not the government, would be the main beneficiaries.   

And it's here that the problems for potential tourists begin. Planning a trip to Burma can be littered with pitfalls, not least in the selection of non-government affiliated tour operators and hotels, a must for those wishing to subscribe to the ethical values laid out by Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party (NLD), who insist they "welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma."

One might argue that these factors are a prerequisite for any decent-minded holidaymaker, no matter where the destination, but in a country as politically sensitive as Burma, where the question of ethics plays such an important role, it's the sorts of things that many people would usually take for granted, which seem to matter most.

So, if you do decide to go, how do you ensure your holiday to Burma is as ethically sound as possible? Certainly in the early days of the return of democracy, with the situation in the country changing rapidly, this was a difficult question to answer. Now though, as travellers return in ever-increasing numbers, the county's tourism infrastructure improves, and more is written and understood about the Burma's situation, the picture for tourists is finally become clearer, making it easier for those thinking about holidaying in Burma to base any decisions on fact and a fair consideration of the many issues at stake.

U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Burma

Reasons to go

Raising awareness - One of the main positives associated with the increase of tourism in Burma is the awareness it raises amongst the international community, helping to highlight the ongoing issues faced by the Burmese people, and the urgent need for things to change.

Social interaction - Social interaction forges understanding between countries and cultures and helps get the message across. A highlight of a trip to Burma is the chance to get to know the locals, who, despite their country's troubles, are some of the most engaging, and indeed welcoming people you could hope to meet.

Supporting small business - Visitors to Burma are likely to use the services of a host of small, independent businesses throughout their stay. Supporting local businesses can have a significant, positive impact on the day-to-day lives of the country's inhabitants, both financially and in terms of self-esteem.

The trickle-down effect - The hope amongst advocates of tourism in Burma is that, as time goes on, the money spent by visitors will eventually trickle down to those who need it the most, raising living standards and helping to improve things such as healthcare and education. Whether this happens, particularly for those communities living in the country's remote rural regions, remains to be seen.

Bagan, Burma

Some things to consider

The issue of human rights - The Burmese government has one of the worst human rights records in the modern world and, despite almost universal condemnation, has continued its attempts to crush democracy, free speech and any form of opposition to government policy. The creation of some tourist facilities and hotels have led to issues of forced labour, child labour and forcible appropriation of land and property, which in turn has been used to build highways, hotels and other facilities to improve the country's tourism infrastructure.

Impact on traditional society - Many communities have been forced to give up their traditional way of life in order to assist in the building of tourism-related projects, often with little or no monetary compensation.

Funding the regime - Although many visitors do everything in their power to avoid it, payments for visa fees, airport taxes and entry fees to some tourist attractions all find their way into the government coffers.

Environmental issues - As in any country, a byproduct of tourism is the inevitably cost to the environment. The vast swathes land and natural resources used for building government-funded hotels and other tourism-related facilities have had a devastating impact on Burma's fragile ecology.

Irrawaddy River, Burma

With the situation in Burma seemingly improving, the choice of whether or not to visit remains, as it should, in the hands of the traveller. While the current government stays in power however, it's certain to remain a sensitive and highly emotive subject.

If done in the right way, with proper planning and with due consideration to all the factors mentioned above, your time in Burma can have a far more positive impact than a negative one.

Contact a Wexas travel specialist to find out more about our tailor-made Burma holidays.

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